On the cold night of Jan. 17, FrontRunner train operator Francis Rendon saw a shadowy figure ahead on the tracks. He hit the emergency brakes, blasted the horn and saw the person run off to the side. He guessed it was a teenage trespasser.

With permission from dispatchers, he climbed down from his stopped engine to look around. He saw no one, so he was cleared to proceed to the nearby Layton station. But a nagging feeling stopped him.

Rendon figured the person just could not have disappeared so fast from the area. So he took a flashlight and looked under the first passenger car. There, he found hiding an 8-year-old autistic boy, who would have been killed when he pulled out.

“I asked him if he was cold and would like to come up on the train,” which coaxed him out, Rendon said. But he never met the boy’s mother — until Wednesday, when Utah Transit Authority officials honored him for his lifesaving actions.

He and Ashley Kofford simply politely shook hands, as Rendon asked how her son is doing now. Kofford then tearfully told reporters, “He saved my life that night,” along with her son’s.

“He is autistic and is an escape artist,” Kofford explained about her son, asking that his name not be used. “He’s escaped from anyone who’s ever had him: day care, schools.”

On that night, when she again discovered her son was missing, Kofford recalled, she started searching. She then noticed the FrontRunner train was stopped near her home at a spot where it usually does not.

“I just panicked,” she said. “I called 911 because whether he was out there or not, I needed help.”

She and police were able to meet the FrontRunner train at the Layton station, where she retrieved her son.

“I can’t really even describe it. I was crying so hard, and he was happy to see me,” Kofford said, “ — and I wanted to kill him myself because he scared me so bad.”

Rendon said the potential danger didn’t hit him hard until after he had dropped the boy off and passed a freight train on adjacent parallel tracks the boy also had crossed — and he shook “when I realized what could have happened.”

As far as her son goes, Kofford said, “he thought it was a great adventure. He doesn’t understand the danger.”

Kofford added that she was already planning to move away from near the tracks, but “because of the incident, we moved early.”

When the train operator was asked if he is a hero, Rendon said, no. “It’s just my job. It’s part of driving trains.”

Kofford begged to differ. “He’s my hero, whether he is for anyone else or not.”

“He went above and beyond, doing what may have been a small thing, but it made all the difference in the world,” said UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson, who noted Rendon has worked for the agency for 18 years, with 1 million accident-free miles.